Xi Jinping
Original publication: twitter.com
Translation: Sun Feiyang, Roderic Day

On the Relationship Between The Arts and Politics (1989)

16 minutes | English 中文 | Art & Propaganda China

A 36-year-old Xi Jinping, then Communist Party Secretary of the prefecture of Ningde in Fujian, reflects on the auxiliary role that art and literature played in the 1989 Tiananmen “colour revolution” operation attempted by the West. It’s worth first getting a clear sense of the geopolitical situation of the era to fully understand the importance of this work. [1]

Another translation of this same document is available from the Carter Center. [2] Interested readers should read both (and, if possible, the original Chinese) for a perfect illustration of how Western China Watchers produce sloppy and biased “official translations” that are basically political hit-jobs.

The relationship between the arts and politics is one of great theoretical importance. According to Dialectical Materialism, the arts and politics are neither separable nor equivalent.

Literature and art belong to the same social superstructure as politics. They are thus ultimately determined by, and play a role in, the economic base of society. As Engels once said, “Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc., development is based on economic development. But all these react upon one another and also upon the economic base.” [3] The arts are a reflection of society, like philosophy and religion. They are, however, as Engels noted, “ideological spheres that are further removed from their material and economic bases.” [4] The relationship of literature and art to the economic base is more indirect than that of politics and law. Both the action of the economic base on literature and the reaction of literature on the economic base are always mediated through other “intermediate links” in the superstructure — morality, philosophy, religion, and especially politics. Because “politics is the most concentrated expression of economics” [5] and in a dominant position within the superstructure, it has the closest and most direct relationship to literature and art. No matter how much influence progressive or reactionary literature has had on society, it must be affirmed that the socio-political context of the time takes precedence in setting the conditions for the creation of said literature, and whatever effect it then has in turn. Without the struggle of the French bourgeoisie against the feudal aristocracy in the 18th century there would have been no Enlightenment literature, and without the extraordinary May Fourth Movement Chinese journalism would not have come into being. Countless such examples affirm the inseparable relationship between literature, art, and politics.

On the other hand, the two — the arts and politics — cannot be reduced to one another. Comrade Mao Zedong, in his Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, argued that “politics cannot be equated with art, nor can a general world outlook be equated with a method of artistic creation and criticism.” [6] As elements of the superstructure, the arts and politics have relative independence from each other, and their own specificity. This independence manifests in content, in form, and in method; they are special sorts of intellectual production with irreplaceable social functions. As Mr. Lu Xun writes, “Literature and art are the fires emitted by the national spirit, and they are also the lights that guide the future of the national spirit.” [7] Literary and artistic works greatly influence the national spirit, the social climate, and even the ideological and cultural standards of future generations. High-quality literature and art may inspire revolutionary ideals, forge national pride, and lift people’s hearts and minds. The arts have a particularly critical role to play in the present era. They can unite, inspire, and motivate the people to achieve the “Four Modernizations,” to revitalize China, and to develop a conception of socialism with distinctive Chinese characteristics. Such a task cannot be left entirely up to politicians. Marx once discussed the phenomenon of unbalanced development in literature and art, the relationship of material production to artistic flourishing during various historical epochs. He concluded that artistic development proceeds according to its own laws, distinct from those of political and economic development. We must discover and respect these laws when managing literary and artistic production. [8]

Decades of practical experience have shown us that correctly understanding the relationship between literature, art, and politics is precisely what allows all of them to thrive. To correctly manage this relationship we are required to draw and implement policies designed to counter and overcome two biased viewpoints in particular.

The first of these is the viewpoint that literature and politics are equivalent, thereby erasing their unique nature. This view completely goes against the law of literary and artistic development. Excessively integrating literature and art into political struggle binds their hands and feet, and turns them into a mere echo of politics. This view is the source of formulaic understandings of the artistic process. It demands artists explicitly declare and underscore certain “lines” or “themes”; it prescribes forms and models and subordinates art to the specific policies of the various different periods. This leads to “False, Big, Empty” artistic creation. From the collections of slogans during the Great Leap Forward, to the mass poetry compositions at Xiao Jinzhuang, the situation of “8 plays for 800 million people” demonstrated how counter-productive such measures could be. They brought about a sense that art was suffocated and that people’s thoughts were being confined.

The other viewpoint that must be opposed and overcome is the pursuit of so-called “pure” art. This one argues for detachment from politics, distance from reality, and hides away in ivory towers, preaching “art for art’s sake.” Literary works created with such prejudice often appear muddled and difficult, or pale and decadent, as a result of being depleted of life and lacking in courage. The result is mournful and nihilistic art. Already 40 years ago Comrade Mao Zedong called on us to “Ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.” [9] In the revolutionary war years art and politics were inseparable. In times of peace and construction, art should also keep pace with the times. Because our literature and art are for the people and for socialism, they cannot be without ideals, goals, and social responsibilities.

Whether it criticizes stereotypes or sings the spirit of the times, whether it denounces negative and ugly phenomena or praises heroic feats, whether it contemplates past history or looks forward and speculates about the future — no matter how different the shapes and colors of our literary production, their social effect should approximate one single goal: they should reflect the people’s sense of historical responsibility for national rejuvenation and social progress. This means that works should ultimately promote values such as hard work and courage, unity and struggle, reform and innovation. They should look to improve Chinese people’s national self-esteem and self-confidence, and encourage them to stand tall among the world’s nations. Countless examples from history — both Chinese and foreign — testify that the truly great works of literature and art are always rooted in the fertile soil of society. They articulate the spirit of the times, echo the footsteps of history, and deeply reflect the socio-political content of their epoch.

Take, for example, the literary creations of this new period. Whether we consider the rebellious poetry in memory of Premier Zhou at Tiananmen Square or the “scar literature” that emerged afterwards, all such works have addressed political questions and aroused strong feelings among the people. It’s no wonder Tiananmen poetry came to be recognized as an expression of will and faith, of the intertwined hearts of people and party. It was the unceasing roar of the people, the immortal song of the times. The social impact of art reached unprecedented heights. Many literary works expressing reform themes such as Jiang Zilong’s Manager Qiao Assumes Office and He Shiguang’s On the Countryside have a large readership because they tackle the burning questions of the day, awaken the people’s curiosity, and chronicle political life and both the ups and downs of the whole process. Comrade Deng Xiaoping pointed out:

Our literary and artistic creations must give expression to our people’s outstanding qualities and celebrate their triumphs in revolution, in construction and in struggles against all kinds of enemies and hardships. […] Writers and artists should consciously draw source material, themes, plots, language and poetic and artistic inspiration from the life of the people and be nourished by the dynamic spirit of the people, who make history. Fundamentally, this is the road which our socialist literature and art must take if it is to flourish. [10]

To correctly understand the relationship between literature and politics, we must conscientiously implement the “adapt ancient and foreign knowledge to our current situation” and “let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred school of thoughts contend” policies proposed by Comrade Mao Zedong. We must grasp the relationship between Party leadership and the development of literature and art. Deng Xiaoping said:

Leadership doesn’t mean handing out administrative orders and demanding that literature and art serve immediate, short-range political goals. It means understanding the special characteristics of literature and art and the laws of their development and creating conditions for them to flourish. That is, it means creating conditions that help writers and artists to improve their skills and to produce fine works and performances truly worthy of our great people and era. [11]

Firstly, conscientious exercise of political leadership in literature entails clear guidelines as to the primacy of the one central task — economic construction — and the two safeguards — adherence to the Four Cardinal Principles and to Reform and Opening Up.

Secondly, it entails respect. We must respect the work of writers and artists, the laws of literary development, and the needs of both artists and art itself. We must give full play to the creative talents and creative spirit of individual artists and writers. The role of literature and art should be appropriately estimated, and issues of right and wrong should be analyzed and developed in a realistic manner. We must conscientiously implement the principle of letting a hundred flowers bloom, innovating the old and bringing forth the new. Leverage foreign ideas for China, use the past for the present as a compass, and guarantee the freedom of creation and criticism for writers and critics both. In terms of form and style, we should encourage free experimentation. In terms of theory, free discussion. Just as freedom for creativity is extended, there is also an expectation that political and conscientious artists will create works that directly serve the people and socialism, the progress of society, and the stability and unity of the country. Any reckless attitudes towards life and towards society are wrong. We must oppose those who, under the guise of creative freedom, use literature and art as a political tool to promote bourgeois liberalization; those who challenge the line, guidelines, and policies of the Party, and deny its leadership. Literary works are not the best means for cathartic venting. We’ve already witnessed certain periods where audiences were flooded with obscene books and films, low-quality literary fare. The excuse of “behavioral art” brought “foot washing” [12] and “chicken hatching” [13] to the halls of the National Art Museum of China. This trend essentially amounts to the destruction of beauty and the desecration of art in the name thereof.

Thirdly, we should actively promote and develop a lively and healthy culture of art criticism. The different styles, forms, and genres must be open to competition. The debate of literary issues should be encouraged. Newspapers should be at the forefront of implementing the policies of “adapting the old and foreign” and “letting a hundred flowers bloom.” They should attempt to be objective, and host healthy, democratic, mutually respectful, and equitable discussions.

Fourthly, we should explore new working methods. Party committees at all levels should be exemplary in their implementation of the policy on literature and art. They should strengthen interactions with literary and artistic workers, brief them on the political situation, listen to their opinions and demands, and do their best to provide them with any assistance they require in order to gain the deepest possible understanding of social life. Adhere to principles with discipline, but without interfering across the board. That said, to ask the Party and the government to refrain from intervening in literature and art altogether is untenable. It is in fact impossible for the government and the ruling party of any country to completely abstain from intervention in the arts. What we ought to do is discuss the scope and means of intervention, as well as its goals. What really matters isn’t whether there is more or less intervention, but rather what is its basis and which ends it serves.

We are a socialist country guided by Marxism. The Party’s knowledge of literature and art should adhere to the Four Cardinal Principles and focus on grasping the overall political direction. The Party should comment on specific literary and artistic views and works, discuss their merits and demerits, and allow the general public and artistic workers to determine artistic taste through regular democratic discussion. We must believe in the people’s artistic ability and aesthetic sensibility. In dealing with conflicts and disputes within academia and in art, administrative orders should be avoided as much as possible. We should study in order to deepen our understanding, and improve our art through democratic and fair discussions.

It is necessary to promote what is correct, to correct what is incorrect, to suppress what is negative and conservative, and to promote the healthy development of literature and art. Through the formulation of relevant rules and regulations, legal provisions, and various economic cultural policies we can develop sound social, material, and cultural conditions and an appropriate public opinion environment.

[1] Sun Feiyang & Roderic Day, 2021. Another View on Tiananmen. [web] 

[2] USCNPM Translations, 7 October 2022. “Translation: Xi Jinping on Literature, Art, and Politics after Tiananmen.” U.S.-China Perception Center. [web] 

[3] Friedrich Engels, 1894. Letter to Borgius. [web] 

[4] Friedrich Engels, 1894. Letter to Borgius. [web] 

[5] V. I. Lenin, 1920. The Trade Unions, The Present Situation, and Trotsky’s Mistakes. [web] 

[6] Mao Zedong, 1942. Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art. [web] 

[7] With Eyes Wide Open, no official title. [web] 

[8] Thus Marx wrote in the Introduction to his Economic Manuscripts of 1857-1858: “As regards art, it is well known that some of its peaks by no means correspond to the general development of society; nor do they therefore to the material substructure.” 

[9] Mao Zedong, 1942. Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art. [web] 

[10] Deng Xiaoping, 1979. Speech Greeting the Fourth Congress of Chinese Writers and Artists. [web] 

[11] Deng Xiaoping, 1979. Speech Greeting the Fourth Congress of Chinese Writers and Artists. [web] 

[12] An artist washed his feet in a bowl decorated with pictures of Ronald Reagan. 

[13] An artist squatted over a clutch of eggs like a chicken.